THOMASVILLE, Ga. --
Ray Drew Jr. has entertained crowds on Friday nights in recent years at Thomas County Central High, mauling opposing quarterbacks with startling regularity. But Drew does his best work on Sunday mornings. He's been preaching since the eighth grade, and he has promised a visitor that he has something special planned for his sermon on the Sunday before Christmas.
Drew knows his days at Paradise are winding down. This Sunday, he won't be in church because he'll be returning from San Antonio after playing in Saturday's
As he studied his Bible looking for a sermon, Drew seized upon the Christmas story itself. He considered the tale of Mary in Bethlehem with husband Joseph for the census with nowhere to stay. He imagined the scorn heaped upon a pregnant woman claiming to be a virgin. He thought of the manger itself, such a humble setting for the event Christians consider the most important in the world's history.
Drew decided he would deliver a simple message. Ignore outside appearance. Focus on the inside.
Drew, 18, realized he wanted to preach when he was a seventh-grader. He remembers lying in bed one night, half awake and half asleep. He saw a vision of an outstretched hand. He started to cry, and his mother, Pam, came to his room to check on him. He told her what had happened, and she told him to go back to sleep. The next day, she called Drew's godfather, Corey McGee, a pastor at a church in nearby Moultrie, Ga. McGee told his godson he'd been called to preach. This made sense to Drew. After all, when the other boys were reading the Three Little Pigs, he was reading about the three Hebrew boys and King Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel.
"I knew I wanted to preach," Drew said. "But I didn't know it was going to come that soon. ... I could have tried to run from it, but eventually it would have caught me."
Within a year, Drew stood before a congregation.
For his first sermon, Drew chose the story of Abraham and Isaac. His message: The lord will provide. Looking back, Drew believes the nervous first-time preacher needed to hear the message just as much as the flock did. "I didn't know how I was going to deliver the sermon," Drew said. "I didn't know how people would react to it. All I knew was the lord will provide."
As his preaching skills grew, so did Drew. Playing for the same high school that produced Heisman Trophy winner-turned-NBA-star Charlie Ward, Drew grew into a 6-foot-5, 240-pound quarterback-wrecking machine. Drew is lean enough that he could add another 20 pounds and not lose a step.
He even brings church to the football field. After he makes a tackle, he doesn't cuss the ballcarrier. He says "God bless you." Drew believes that sometimes this unnerves opponents more than a stream of insults. "It gets in their head a little bit," he said.
Still, Drew needs to develop his on-field mean streak. The young minister may have to act a little more Old Testament to overcome college offensive linemen.
For that, Drew couldn't have a better hero. He relishes tales of the exploits of late Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers defensive end Reggie White. White, who was an ordained minister, used football to help spread his message of faith. But he never turned the other cheek on the field. Drew has learned that through conversations with White's daughter, Jecolia.
In fact, some have suggested that Drew, who has yet to be ordained, might be the next Minister of Defense. Drew balks at the notion. There is only one Minister of Defense, and that's White. Drew would prefer another nickname. "The Pastor of Pass Rush," he said with a wide smile.
The coach who signs Drew will get a player who can fill two positions -- defensive end and chaplain. Eddie Edwards, the senior pastor at Paradise, believes Drew has a natural gift for preaching. "He's just a soul-stirrer," Edwards said. "It's captivating how he allows the spirit to use him."
Drew plans to play football for as long as he can, and he'd love to become a broadcaster when his career ends, but none of that will keep Drew from standing in the pulpit every chance he gets. Preaching, he said, is the most challenging and rewarding experience he can imagine. "Standing up in front of the congregation," he said, "you're responsible for someone's soul."